Friday, May 06, 2011

Bankrupt: Opening and Closure

President Obama has extolled the possibility of unity growing out of the end of bin Laden, and on Thursday he went to Ground Zero to further the healing process and perhaps even that elusive "closure."  But judging from the surrounding noise, bin Laden's death has not so much closed a wound as opened one.

For we're suddenly reliving the Bush years.  While GOPers are back defending the efficacy of torture (while interrogation experts continue to say it's useless as well as the terrorists' top recruiting tool, and numerous people who should know--plus a New York Times investigation--affirm that torture played no part in gaining the information that led to bin Laden), Democrats are opening their eyes again to the costs of Bushwar.  And they are even more tragic now.

On Tuesday, Lawrence O'Donnell compared John Kerry's 2004 position on terrorism and Iraq with Bush's, and showed that the years since have proven Kerry right.  Plus if Kerry's approach had been implemented, it would have been far, far, far less costly in money and lives.  But what O'Donnell doesn't say is that Kerry's prescription was at least in general the same as what Al Gore talked about immediately after 9-11. 

Also on Tuesday, Rachel Maddow used her program's considerable skills in making a point clearly and visually.  The point she made has been advanced by others ( most recently, the Washington Post reporter she quoted, Ezra Klein.)  The point is this: Osama bin Laden's basic intent was to leverage terroristic acts to force the United States government to bankrupt itself.  Literally, financially. 

Bin Laden had actually seen this happen to a Superpower, when the Afghan resistance he was a part of (at the behest of the Saudi royals) effectively bankrupted the Soviet Union.  He figured he could do it to the U.S., too.  Sure enough, as Maddow showed, the U.S. government doubled its defense budget and spent untold billions on intelligence and other activities directly flowing from a particular U.S. administration's response to bin Laden.  (This concludes Maddow's point and begins mine.)

For thanks to some unfortunate events in Florida and a politicized Supreme Court, bin Laden got a willing partner in the White House--helped by a cowardly Congress-- for this particular goal.  The Bushites responded as they did for all kinds of reasons.  That's evident from their resurgent talking points this week, as well as what they're not saying, which has to do with sustaining GOPer power and enriching their corporate partners.

But isn't it odd that bin Laden's goal and the stated goal of the Rabid Right--to so diminish the ability of the federal government that it can be drowned in a bathtub--is essentially the same?

Maybe that's a stretch for some people, but I submit the effect is pretty damn much the same.  Look at where we are.  Apart even from the thousands of dead, the thousands of wounded, the thousands of families and millions of people whose lives have been twisted if not ruined--there's the federal government, with huge debt and diminished abilities to respond to the real needs and greater threats that we face.

The ongoing needs--education, health care, infrastructure, investment in clean energy--that have only grown worse, and for which there are scant resources (and diminished ability within the federal government, systematically depleted in key areas for political reasons.)  All of the needs that could have been addressed.

What this week has accidentally reminded us is how much we wasted in the past decade, and how tragically timed that waste was.  Because we failed to address, even accidentally, the greatest threat to our civilization, even when it was more generally acknowledged: the Climate Crisis.

The news this week--ignored as usual--was that the most prestigious study so far (though not the first) indicates that UN estimates for melting of Arctic and Greenland ice were way too modest--the melting is happening much faster, and as a consequence they predict a greater rise in sea levels.

It's just one of the daily pieces of evidence.  At this point our fate is probably sealed, whatever it turns out to be, but it's not likely to be good.  But had we been addressing this for the past ten years, and even if we had the federal surplus to apply to getting ready for the effects, we might have gotten through this without the major dislocations we're facing.  And so here we are, in so many ways, bankrupt.

The Phantom Menace and the Shameless Few

Judging from the rising unemployment claims of the past few weeks, there's little likelihood that unemployment will show much if any decline when those figures are announced later today.  Perhaps in anticipation of that, Paul Krugman wrote a scathing column .  He notes the weak recovery and its negligible effects on employment: "Employment has risen from its low point, but it has grown no faster than the adult population. And the plight of the unemployed continues to worsen: more than six million Americans have been out of work for six months or longer, and more than four million have been jobless for more than a year.  It would be nice if someone in Washington actually cared."

Krugman writes that Washington isn't exactly complacent--it is quaking with fear, but afraid of all the wrong things: debt crisis, dollar crisis, inflation crisis, none of which, he claims, are likely to happen, especially now or in the next few years.  What is happening is the jobs crisis.  "Unemployment isn’t just blighting the lives of millions, it’s undermining America’s future. The longer this goes on, the more workers will find it impossible ever to return to employment, the more young people will find their prospects destroyed because they can’t find a decent starting job. It may not create excited chatter on cable TV, but the unemployment crisis is real, and it’s eating away at our society... So we’re paying a heavy price for Washington’s obsession with phantom menaces."

Last week Think Progress worked out the figures and assembled a graph showing income inequality by nation.  Income inequality has been growing in the richest industrial nations the past few years--still, the United States is the most unequal among western nations, and is the least equal in the world except for one other country: Uganda. And that's pretty close to a tie.  There's a wider gap in America than in any Third World country that supposedly is defined by such gaps.  Pakistan is more equal.   Not since the Great Depression has there been this great a gap in the U.S.

Just as this is joblessness with cell phones, it may well be the Great Depression with color TV for many in America.  Income inequality has been growing since the 1980s, with the super rich amassing obscene wealth while everyone else slips back and now an increasing proportion are genuinely suffering, or are very near the edge of losing even the illusion of a middle class life.  How cynical would it be to suggest that the plutocracy in America will never experience shame for this?  But what about the country as a whole?  Is it possible to feel shame as a nation anymore?

That's in part a political question.  President Obama knows the costs of unemployment to people.  He sees those stories every night in the letters he reads from those who write to him.  With the GOPers threatening to hold the nation hostage in the debt ceiling debate, that takes immediate precedence.  It's not even clear what he can do, with this Rabid Right congressional fever, but the time is coming soon to try.

Update: The unemployment rate edged up to 9.0 from 8.8 but the economy added a "healthy" number of jobs--244,000-- beyond expectationsThe New York Times business guy thinks it's because last month's unemployment number was off, and this is closer to the true number.

Koch is It

If you had the slightest doubt about the nature of the connection between billionaires--specifically the Koch brothers--and the tea party/Rabid Right, or you thought that even if the Kochs were financing these folks, they weren't directly responsible for their inflammatory talking points: check out these few sentences that a New York Magazine reporter got out of fossil fuel and chemicals billionaire David Koch at a charity fundraiser.

After saying President Obama deserves "zero credit" for getting Osama bin Laden,  David Koch said this:  Obama is "a hardcore socialist," Koch told us, "and he’s marvelous at pretending to be something other than that, but that is what I believe he truly is, a hardcore socialist. He’s scary to me."

That's the Rabid Right mantra on President Obama: socialist, devious, scary. It is Koch.  And  Koch is It.

Thursday, May 05, 2011

Meanwhile on Planet Canada...

  Our cousin to the north suggested something was brewing up there in the Canadian elections.  So I paid attention to the TPM preview.  Even though it was titled Yes, America, There Is A Canada, it took a google news search to even find election results.

So here's is another U.S. take on the story, a business-oriented one from the LA Times (for that's what counts about Canada--our biggest oil supplier and chief trading partner, you see.)  It allows that the Canadian elections were "surprisingly interesting."  Could we get any more condescending?  I guess we're not afraid of their terrorists or nukes.

  Personally I found the results unsurprisingly confusing, since it's a parliamentary system, and the parties are different (the Liberals are middle of the road, the Conservatives are for single-payer national healthcare, and the New Democrats are to the left of any of our Democrats.) Even the colors are different: the conservatives are blue, and though there is a Green Party, the New Democrats are orange.  Gee, we don't even have orange.

The upshot seems to be that it was a tremendous victory for the New Democrats and also a tremendous victory for the Conservatives.  The NDP won a bunch of seats--three times as many as it had before-- and became the party with the second-largest representation in the legislature, but the Conservatives won a majority for the first time anyone has done so in ten years.  This analysis from the Globe & Mail says it was a result tied to some familiar-sounding economic divides.  But what does it all mean?  I await enlightenment.

[Top photo is Vancouver, BC.  On the left wing is Hamilton, Ontario.] 

Tuesday, May 03, 2011

Saturday Night and Sunday Night

According to news reports, President Obama made the decision on Friday to go ahead with plan he had previously selected from several options, to find and capture or kill Osama bin Laden.  Because it wasn't absolutely certain that bin Laden was there, some of his National Security team reportedly had not been in favor of this.  It seems clear that President Obama pretty much staked his presidency on being right about this, and on a successful mission. 

The mission was scheduled for Saturday, but was called off because of bad weather.  So as previously scheduled, President Obama attended the correspondents' dinner, where he laughed at a comedian's joke about bin Laden's whereabouts (he hosts an afternoon show on C-Span), and provided his own brilliant and exquisitely timed stand-up routine. 

Part of it seemed actually politically significant to me when I watched it later, and now--after the events of Sunday--both Josh Marshall and Howard Fineman commented on exactly that part of it, which assumed even more power because of Sunday.  It came after President Obama kidded himself and his attackers concerning the birther blather.  He then pretended to start similar rumors about GOPer contenders (Michelle Bachman was really born in Canada; Tim Palenty's middle name is Hosni.)   Then he took on Trump, describing the kind of executive decisionmaking that qualifies him to be President:

" But all kidding aside, obviously, we all know about your credentials and breadth of experience. (Laughter.) For example -- no, seriously, just recently, in an episode of Celebrity Apprentice -- (laughter) -- at the steakhouse, the men's cooking team cooking did not impress the judges from Omaha Steaks. And there was a lot of blame to go around. But you, Mr. Trump, recognized that the real problem was a lack of leadership. And so ultimately, you didn't blame Lil' Jon or Meatloaf. (Laughter.) You fired Gary Busey. (Laughter.) And these are the kind of decisions that would keep me up at night. (Laughter and applause.) Well handled, sir. (Laughter.) Well handled. "

Even if the bin Laden mission hadn't happened Sunday, this one moment might have been enough to destroy Trump's candidacy in everyone's eyes except probably his own.  Now it almost certainly has.

A lot of correspondents from major print and electronic outlets were at the dinner, along with Hollywood celebrities and major political figures, including Secretary of Defense Robert Gates.  The correspondents saw Obama completely at ease, apparently having a good time.  They had no idea of the decision he had made, and the stakes of the operation that had been rescheduled for just a few hours later.  "One thing should be clear now," wrote New York Times reporter Michael Shear in that paper's political blog: "Don't play poker with President Obama." 

What transpired on Sunday confirmed President Obama as Commander-in-Chief.  But what makes him a great President was the context he created and the meaning he gave it in his address to the nation on Sunday night.  Michael Scherer  reports on the crafting of that speech on Sunday night.  President Obama, he reports, knew what he wanted to say when he began talking with aides:

Obama has discussed this thematic connection with his aides in the West Wing, explaining that the death of bin Laden signals something far greater than a national security accomplishment. “He views this as a demonstration of this country’s capacity to overcome skeptics and do things that people had decided were no longer doable,” explained Press Secretary Jay Carney, in an interview Monday afternoon. “There is sort of a grit and resolve. And not in a John Wayne way, but in a commitment and focus.”

It was a restatement, Scherer wrote, of his theme of "We do big things."  But it was even more a restatement of what Americans can achieve when they work together in good faith, and a call once again to serious approaches to serious problems.  It is a theme he will continue in the days ahead.  Obviously it is a re-election theme, but it is also the core of his message from his candidacy: we must work together to solve problems, and we have some really big problems.  It may not be easy, it may take time, but Americans have done it before.  We have done big things.  This is the mythos he urges us to adopt: we do big things.  But particular big things:

"That is the story of our history, whether it’s the pursuit of prosperity for our people, or the struggle for equality for all our citizens; our commitment to stand up for our values abroad, and our sacrifices to make the world a safer place. Let us remember that we can do these things not just because of wealth or power, but because of who we are: one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all."

The big things he came to office to do--and the big things that circumstances required that he do--are aimed at winning the future.  He identified addressing the healthcare problem as the most critical one--its costs to businesses of all sizes and government at all levels as well as to families and individuals, that were only going to grow exponentially in the future.  To truly solve this efficiently would require everyone's sincere efforts.  That was the point of attempting a bipartisan bill.  But because of infantile whatever-you're for-we're against GOPer partisanship, it was costly to pass an imperfect bill, and it will be a struggle to implement and perfect it. 

Because of that infantile partisanship, fueled by oil billions and fear, we are risking the future by not addressing the Climate Crisis as a civilization.  President Obama has gotten what he could by emphasizing the economic benefits of  green energy innovation, so there is still a chance, however slim, to win the future.  If it takes something as nebulously related as the end to a great symbol of evil to bring Americans together long enough for them to actually hear what President Obama has been saying, it is a possibility worth exploring.  "...our sacrifices to make the world a better place" doesn't just mean the sacrifices of soldiers and their families regarding military actions.  Ultimately it is an excellent description of why we must confront the Climate Crisis.  

Monday, May 02, 2011

Gleanings from the bin Laden News

A few thoughts and gleanings from today's dominant story: the U.S. military operation that killed Osama bin Laden in a firefight at his Pakistan compound.

First, on the facts, as various bits of misinformation have floated around, and the disinformation has begun.  The body of bin Laden was confirmed both by DNA and eyewitness identification (by his wife, who sustained a minor injury and was left behind with other survivors.)  One report said that Pakistan government operatives took control of the compound shortly after the U.S. Navy Seals left (operating under the Joint Special Operations Command).  They were on the ground for about forty minutes.  Bin Laden was buried at sea, in accordance with Islamic law (as approved by clerics in America today.)  

As the timeline was further revealed Monday, the connection to bin Laden was made through the identity and later the location of a courier he used instead of electronic communications.  Some TV "experts" previously connected with the Bush administration touted that this intelligence came from "enhanced interrogation" (i.e. torture.)  This however was strongly denied by Senate Intelligence Committee Chair Dianne Feinstein.  A Time Magazine reporter quotes her: 

Feinstein was adamant that no information obtained by waterboarding led to Abbottabad. “We’re doing a report on detention and interrogation, which is the Democratic majority report, and we’ve gone through over three million cables, pages, documents going back and I do not believe that there is any evidence that this came from waterboarding,” she said.

Confirmation of Democrat Feinstein's assertion came from an unusual source: Donald Rumsfeld, Bush's Secretary of Defense at the time.  There are contemporaneous reports that I recall that said that intelligence was obtained from suspects, but through incentives and humane treatment, not threats and torture.

Reports are that bin Laden lived in that fortress compound for several years, in a highly populated area only a mile from the Pakistani version of West Point military academy and not far from the capital.  Lawrence O'Donnell points out that it was built in 2005, which was also the year that the Bush administration closed the office in the CIA that had been charged with locating bin Laden.

About the immediate response to the news on Sunday: The comment I was most struck by was to the effect that the spontaneous demonstrations were from primarily young people, which showed how important bin Laden was symbolically to them and their lives.  If true, that surprises me and seems significant to me. 
This is the cover of the upcoming special issue of Time Magazine.  Osama bin Laden's death was announced on May 1, 2011.

This is the cover of Time Magazine, following the announcement of the death of Hitler on May 1, 1945.

There are a lot of complexities about the meaning of what's happened in the past 24 hours, just as the actual facts of what happened are still being clarified.  But clearly in some way these two covers express the emotions of the moment, though as with everything, the equivalence of Hitler to anyone is usually a false one in degree at least.  But for our time it is for many Americans and perhaps others, that kind of moment.

Sunday, May 01, 2011

From President Obama's statement to the nation on Sunday night:

THE PRESIDENT: Good evening. Tonight, I can report to the American people and to the world that the United States has conducted an operation that killed Osama bin Laden, the leader of al Qaeda, and a terrorist who’s responsible for the murder of thousands of innocent men, women, and children.

 [After nearly ten years].....Yet Osama bin Laden avoided capture and escaped across the Afghan border into Pakistan. Meanwhile, al Qaeda continued to operate from along that border and operate through its affiliates across the world. And so shortly after taking office, I directed Leon Panetta, the director of the CIA, to make the killing or capture of bin Laden the top priority of our war against al Qaeda, even as we continued our broader efforts to disrupt, dismantle, and defeat his network.

Then, last August, after years of painstaking work by our intelligence community, I was briefed on a possible lead to bin Laden. It was far from certain, and it took many months to run this thread to ground. I met repeatedly with my national security team as we developed more information about the possibility that we had located bin Laden hiding within a compound deep inside of Pakistan. And finally, last week, I determined that we had enough intelligence to take action, and authorized an operation to get Osama bin Laden and bring him to justice.

Today, at my direction, the United States launched a targeted operation against that compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan. A small team of Americans carried out the operation with extraordinary courage and capability. No Americans were harmed. They took care to avoid civilian casualties. After a firefight, they killed Osama bin Laden and took custody of his body....

Yet his death does not mark the end of our effort. There’s no doubt that al Qaeda will continue to pursue attacks against us. We must –- and we will -- remain vigilant at home and abroad.  As we do, we must also reaffirm that the United States is not –- and never will be -– at war with Islam. I’ve made clear, just as President Bush did shortly after 9/11, that our war is not against Islam. Bin Laden was not a Muslim leader; he was a mass murderer of Muslims. Indeed, al Qaeda has slaughtered scores of Muslims in many countries, including our own. So his demise should be welcomed by all who believe in peace and human dignity.

The American people did not choose this fight... Yet as a country, we will never tolerate our security being threatened, nor stand idly by when our people have been killed. We will be relentless in defense of our citizens and our friends and allies. We will be true to the values that make us who we are. And on nights like this one, we can say to those families who have lost loved ones to al Qaeda’s terror: Justice has been done.

We give thanks for the men who carried out this operation, for they exemplify the professionalism, patriotism, and unparalleled courage of those who serve our country. And they are part of a generation that has borne the heaviest share of the burden since that September day.

Finally, let me say to the families who lost loved ones on 9/11 that we have never forgotten your loss, nor wavered in our commitment to see that we do whatever it takes to prevent another attack on our shores.

And tonight, let us think back to the sense of unity that prevailed on 9/11. I know that it has, at times, frayed. Yet today’s achievement is a testament to the greatness of our country and the determination of the American people.

The cause of securing our country is not complete. But tonight, we are once again reminded that America can do whatever we set our mind to. That is the story of our history, whether it’s the pursuit of prosperity for our people, or the struggle for equality for all our citizens; our commitment to stand up for our values abroad, and our sacrifices to make the world a safer place.

Let us remember that we can do these things not just because of wealth or power, but because of who we are: one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.

Thank you. May God bless you. And may God bless the United States of America."

Tornado Update

From the AP: "At least one of the massive tornadoes that killed hundreds across the South this week was a devastating EF-5 storm, according to an analysis Friday by the National Weather Service, which suspects several others also were the worst of the worst."

Meanwhile, more climate scientists relate the tornado outbreak to Climate Crisis climate change.